What's Toxic Stress?

What's Toxic Stress?

Toxic stress happens when a child's biological stress response gets so overtaxed by adversity that it can harm their brains and bodies.

If left unaddressed, toxic stress can affect growth, learning, behavior, immunity and even the way DNA is read and transcribed. Kids who are exposed to very high doses of adversity without the support of a loving and caring adult can have more than double the lifetime risk of heart disease and cancer and a nearly 20-year difference in life expectancy. Yikes.

If your child has been exposed to adversity, know you’re not alone. Roughly half of children in the US are affected. But there’s good news: Research shows parents can be the most powerful force in preventing or even reversing the impact of toxic stress in their children. That’s why we’re on a mission to help.

Positive Stress

Results from brief periods of stress associated with everyday experiences, like starting at a new daycare, getting shots at the doctors office, or taking a test at school. It is a normal and essential part of healthy development. In fact, our bodies are designed to manage this type of stress.

Tolerable Stress

This can happen when a child experiences more severe or longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. But if caring, supportive adults are present and engaged to help them adapt, cope and buffer the stress, it will protect their brains and bodies in the long term – and may actually bolster resilience.

Toxic Stress

Results from severe and prolonged childhood adversities like abuse, physical and/or emotional neglect, parental addiction, and parental mental illness—without buffering support from caring adults. This kind of stress can get under a child's skin, literally changing their brains and bodies, and can set them on a downward spiral of lifelong mental and physical health issues.

Types of Stress Response

What are the signs?

What are the signs?

You know your kid best. So if something seems a bit off, it’s worth paying attention.

If you notice your child is having sleep issues, frequent headaches or tummy aches, crying more than usual, becoming extra clingy, regressing to bed wetting or baby talk, or developing new fears, it could be related to toxic stress.

In school age kids and adolescents, learning, behavior, mood and sleep issues are some common signs.

These aren't the only symptoms, but they do provide important clues that your child may be experiencing toxic stress.

Is My Kid at Risk?

Is My Kid at Risk?

Is My Kid at Risk?

To better understand if a child is at risk for toxic stress, clinicians will look at how many Adverse Childhood Experiences (or “ACEs”) they’ve been exposed to.

We’re not talking about “I was nervous for a test” or “I played badly in my soccer game.” Adverse Childhood Experiences means damaging life events like emotional or physical abuse, neglect, parental addiction and mental illness. Experiences that can be life altering for a child. The list below isn’t exhaustive, but if your kid has experienced ACEs, they may be at risk for toxic stress. But even if this is the case, don’t panic! There’s a lot you can do as a parent. Knowing what’s happening is the first step to getting help. And the earlier we’re able to help a child, the better the outcome over the long run.

Here are the ten categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) from the original ACE Study.


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Take the ACE Quiz to learn your (or your child’s) ACE Score:

Take the Quiz

Okay, so now what? If your kid is dealing with toxic stress, what do you do? Join us.

Stress Health.

Stress Health.

Stress Health isn’t just a suggestion. It’s a movement. It’s not just information.
It’s a solution.

We are doctors, researchers, communicators, therapists and parents. And when we discovered the staggering effects toxic stress has on kids’ long-term health, we were shocked. So we joined forces to do something about it. More than anything, we want you to know we’re glad you’re here. Because you can help us help kids lead longer, healthier lives.

Here’s how: research shows that the right kind of support and care can mitigate the impact of toxic stress in children and help them bounce back. There are ways parents can support a healthy stress response: sleep, nutrition, exercise, mental health, mindfulness and healthy relationships. These things help to decrease our stress hormones and inflammation for healthier brains and bodies.

Below, you’ll find practical tips on how you can incorporate these building blocks into your kid’s day. We can help kids bounce back, together.

We Can Do This.

We Can Do This.

Toxic stress is an urgent health crisis in our society. Though often hidden, toxic stress leads to huge increases in some of the top killers of our generation: heart disease, cancer, suicide, opioid addiction and more.

But there is good news: Now we know just how harmful toxic stress is to our kids. So now we can do something about it, together.

We can stop stressing perfection. And instead, stress what works. We can stop stressing appearances. And stress the science that is so compelling.

We can stress building resilient families that adapt to adversity in healthy ways.

Join the movement.

Get updates on our fight against toxic stress: